Judging the Impact of Super PACs

September 25, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

When Governor Scott Walker ended his Presidential candidacy, which happened after Rick Perry suspended his, commentators marveled that they could be done for and have well funded Super PAC still idling nearby.  It has been assumed that a conclusion was ready to be drawn—the more conclusive, the better.  The proposition that Super PACs rule the world has met with the objection that, no, they really don’t, not as we once thought.

Case in point: a piece in Salon, whose author, Sean Illing, wishes to show that, as the title states, Plutocrats still Reign, and that Walker’s withdrawal is no “defeat” for their Super PACs.  Very few commentators actually argued that Walker’s downfall signaled the end of plutocratic control.  If not that, then, what does the Walker’s withdrawal have to teach about the power and limits of Super PACs?

Illing rejects the view that money is “unimportant”—but who says that?  He has varying judgments to offer of the importance of big money in campaigns.  He refers to its “primacy”;  its “dominance”;  its “disproportionate influence”; and its “going a long way in determining the outcome.”  All of this adds up to the suggestion that Super PACs, as one channel for wealth in politics, are “very important,” but without a very clear or precise explanation of what that is supposed to mean.

One theory now gaining currency is that early in the cycle, candidates have to have enough “hard money” to enable them to move to a later stage when the infusion of Super PAC funds, on the air, would begin to matter.  But this theory sits uneasily alongside an earlier version that held that Super PACs, ranging beyond advertising, are beginning to conduct the organizing and field activities that candidates and parties were once primarily responsible for.  Super PACs are supposed to be operating more and more like an arm of the candidate’s campaign.  And maybe so, but then it is not clear why the Walker-supporting Super PAC was not more helpful to Walker.

Candidacies matter, as do the quality of the campaigns candidates run, and the performance of the Super PAC, or its role in the campaign, could also have a bearing on success.  Sometimes money is spent unwisely, and it can happen that it is spent wisely but without effect.  There is a lot still to be learned about Super PACs and other bequests of Citizens United (and Speechnow).

Nothing all that useful can be taken at this stage from the Walker experience, or Perry’s, except what is already known about money in politics: it is never unimportant and rarely all-important.

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